Athletes and entertainers’ concerted efforts to tell their own stories on their own platforms has added to an already oversaturated pool of content. A key to standing out is creating something that feels as authentic as possible, which is no small task when these programs are tethered to the carefully-manicured images of high-profile figures. HBO’s The Shop: Uninterrupted, created by Paul Rivera with LeBron James and entrepreneur Maverick Carter guiding each conversation, uses the concept of the barbershop as a safe haven for notable guests to have open dialogues about a range of topics.
Each episode (the latest of which airs tonight, July 30) is directed by Robert Alexander, who’s responsible for making sure the show is engaging, both narratively and visually. “You want the audience to feel like they’re in the room sharing space, but it also has to look special to them,” Alexander explains. Cutting through the manufactured authenticity looming over most content to make something that feels real is an arduous task, but it’s even more challenging when your guests include celebrities, athletes, and politicians. Whether it’s Odell Becham Jr. discussing how he feels like a zoo animal in public or California Gov. Gavin Newsom signing the Fair Pay to Play Act while Katelyn Ohashi and Diana Taurasi detail the exploitative nature of the NCAA, The Shop aims for honesty. It’s Alexander’s job to not only create an atmosphere which facilitates these moments, but to make them feel natural.
Alexander recently spoke to GQ about the unseen work that goes into bringing The Shop to life, his favorite behind-the-scenes moments, and the balance of staying true to his vision while creating for others.
The Shop is filmed in a way that makes the audience feel like a fly on the wall during these conversations. How do you set that up, logistically, so it feels as natural as possible?
Well, you start with understanding the parameters. It’s so important that you’re able to enjoy the conversations and intimacy playing out in front of you. The other side is that, yes, you want it to feel intimate and connected, but you also want it to be beautiful. Because a conversation’s a conversation, right? But if I want to experience a conversation, I want it to look and feel beautiful, and I want to connect with it.
The way it works logistically in the actual space is, first, understanding who’s going to be in the room. That’s its own process. Once we’ve established who’s going to be in the room, we think about what matters culturally. What are all these people who are sharing this space going to be excited to talk about? Then it’s about literally looking at a space and determining the most attractive space where if you sit here, and you sit here, and you sit here, and you look here, and you look here, and you look here, how do I make that the most visually appealing? And then how close can I be, but at the same time, respecting someone’s space. Because we want them to feel comfortable and excited to share, so it’s about creating an environment that’s incredibly safe, inviting, there’s no pressure, and you’re allowed to breathe.
So it’s a choice for where our cameras are positioned—sometimes we’ve had up to 10 cameras in the room, but we don’t want the cameras to be up in your face. It’s the same thing with our lighting: We don’t want it to be overpowering to where you’re constantly squinting your eyes. We make choices with long lenses and how the lights feel in a minimized space where people can be open.
How are the locations determined and how do you map out the best way to shoot each of them?
Well, we want every space to feel different. Also, creating anything is both a selfish and selfless endeavor at the same time. It’s selfless because it requires so many people to make something special, but it’s selfish in that I make things that I want to look at. You want it to feel refreshing. You want it to feel new. Obviously, the heart of this is trying to get honest, open conversations in a barbershop space, and we want to create the world for that. But it’s good to understand how the world exists: the space you or I may call a barbershop is not the same thing someone else calls a barbershop or salon. So by creating an environment where we’re not stuck in ‘This is how it should look’ and ‘This is how it should feel.’ But then the idea that, even though the space is what you may not recognize with regard to the openness and intimacy, we can all connect with that.
Every now and then you see someone actually getting a haircut. How do you handle the audio so the sound of clippers doesn’t drown out the conversation?
We’ve worked very hard to find the tools that make the least amount of noise. Then we get very specific about what they’re doing; they’re all pros, so we give them a specific amount of time to come in and do everything they have to do. If it was up to me, we wouldn’t be cutting hair [laughs]. You can’t imagine some of the continuity issues of trying to piece the conversation together and make it feel right. It’s one of the pillars of the show and I get that, but early on, we were doing way more elaborate haircuts. It was too much, because you don’t want to miss out on the conversation. It’s still a high-quality product that you want to get out into the world, but if there are so many clippers going at once and barbers are constantly standing in front of our talent, you’re not able to see what they’re saying. You have to make the necessary TV adjustments while still keeping it as real as possible. We want to make sure that we’re having a barbershop-level conversation that’s honest, raw, open, and deep.
I think the challenge with a show like The Shop is that you’re making content, but never want it to feel forced or stale. Considering all of the reputations and personal brands invested, you still want to make something that is honest and natural. How do you make it feel authentic?
I think that comes from a couple of different places. This is something that was created that I was brought into to elevate and put my own stamp on. Respecting the vision from Paul Rivera and Randy Mims, the creators of the program—which I think was in digital format, but now it’s on HBO. There’s an inherent understanding that if you’re having this type of conversation with people at a certain level, you don’t waste that. It’s the opportunity to listen in on conversations around greatness, pushing, and striving. So I don’t think of it as branded. For me, if it’s a conversation, I don’t want it to look like any other conversation I see and you take pride in that. If Rick Rubin is there, what’s the environment where he’s going to want to take off his shoes? But that’s Rick Rubin anyway, so it’s about how you even get him into the space in the first place.
That goes into a whole gamut of amazing people from talent and production teams, and people with relationships with Mav and LeBron, who say: “I’m willing to bring this person into the room, but it has to be worthy of their time.” The show, at its heart, is really beautiful chaos. Because to get all these people for even a small window of time, it takes so many people, just on the logistics side up front. We’ll shoot for as short as 40 minutes or as long as three hours if people are feeling the energy and want to stick around. So understanding that, in order to do this, there are so many moving parts. The reason I call it beautiful chaos is because on the day, everything is moving at once. But when the talent shows up, they don’t see any of the chaos. They come in, sit down, and have an open conversation.
So do people come to the set knowing what they’ll be expected to do or discuss?
We work really hard to build out the creative for the show in a way that’s going to appeal to the audience, but this isn’t an interview. This isn’t a press run. It’s supposed to be an escape from that. This is an environment where you can present yourself in a way that encourages you to get things off your chest, talk about the journey you’ve been on, or the debates and arguments you’ve felt like you have to keep hidden. We don’t really present a list, like: “We’re gonna have you do this, this, and this.” It doesn’t work like that, otherwise it doesn’t feel natural.
I think that’s part of what viewers want to understand, because this is an entertainment platform for entertainers and athletes. In the past five or so years, you see more of them wanting to get away from talking to journalists and having these conversations among themselves on their own platforms. How often do guests challenge each other? For example, when Hasan Minhaj and Whoopi Goldberg disagreed about the generational divide within the Democratic Party.
It happens. We want that environment to feel honest. There’s no bullshit, so we want you to express and defend how you feel. Disagreements are always encouraged, but it’s important that it’s done by sharing different perspectives, because we want the audience to be able to watch that and think: “I relate to this person and now there’s not so much distance [between us].” But also, they can be encouraged by seeing how they can disagree, but feel safe in sharing their perspective. It’s not about, “It’s this way and nothing else matters.” It’s about learning from someone else and how they see the world—and respecting that. So we have disagreements, but we don’t push towards or away from them. We push towards whatever’s natural, and people are naturally going to disagree, so we want to show that it’s okay.
I get that you want to roll the ball out and let people play, in a sense, but some guests have to know that they’re in the room for a reason. You’re calling certain people to talk about specific things.
I will say this: There’s a beautiful balance between incredibly raw conversation, but at the same time, there’s a very clear agenda for us internally about what we want to talk about. We’re excited for the talent there with us to talk about it, so there’s a lot of time spent essentially building a roadmap for the conversation. This is where we want to start, this is where we want to end, we want to make sure we address this, so we prepare maybe 15 to 20 topics and supporting questions for each of them. We like the show to work in a way where we just sit down and go, but at the same time, we want to make sure it’s engaging in addition to hitting the agenda. A lot of that is done in post, but we want it to be engaging for Mav and PR as our leaders on set and for all the talent that’s there. We want them to look forward to talking about these topics and I actively communicate with them throughout the show to follow up on different points or places we want to go.
In that same episode where Hasan Minahj and Whoopi Goldberg had that disagreement, it seemed like the discussion was progressing, then you cut to Maverick talking to Megan Rapinoe about a completely different topic. How often do you find yourself having to cut into interesting discussions for the sake of length?
It’s always different when you’re in the space versus when you sit down to edit. Sometimes there’s a different energy when you’re in the room with Whoopi or Jay-Z. But when you look at the formula of trying to make a high-quality 30-minute program, you make choices. I’d love to make a two-hour show, but since we don’t have the opportunity to do that for this program, it’s my job to figure out how we respect the conversation as much as humanly possible before we move on. Sometimes the conversation goes on, sometimes it’s just dead right there. I care a lot about things having a rhythm and flow, so me and my editor James and the rest of the post team make choices in the edit. If I took pride in knowing someone made their point and then the conversation tapers off, I know to go on to the next thing because I want that rhythm to be there. We have an intro, transition, an outro with music, but other than that, it’s dry. So we want it to be raw, but you’re trying to live within the parameters of 30 minutes. You want to make sure everyone has their moment, but you figure out what’s right for the pace.
The upside of you directing every episode is that you’re solely responsible for the look and feel of the show. What are some of the benefits of that consistency?
We try to do something different every time with my DPs and the production team. I think what’s beautiful is that we’ve done this enough, so even though the voices in the room are unpredictable, we still know the formula for what works the best. If we’re making a 30-minute conversation that’s going to air on HBO, we know the right number of people to have, the best way to approach conversation, and the best way to transition. That comes from having that consistency. If you keep doing something and you’re paying close enough attention, looking for the nuance, and listening more than you’re speaking, it just gets tighter and tighter.
How do you determine the ideal number of people to have in the room?
A point might matter to a few people. It might matter to everyone in the room, so if it matters to everyone, we also want to respect everyone having an opportunity to share a perspective. And in terms of cutting it down, I don’t want to disrespect someone and give them 30 seconds when someone else got however many minutes to talk about something. Also, the best wins no matter what. At a certain point, we’re like, “Okay, this is just a higher-quality perspective” or “This person is coming with the most knowledge and information about this subject, so we have to respect that.” So it’s a combination.
In the episode with Kevin Hart and Lil Nas X, there’s a moment when Kevin Hart raises his hand to speak “for the sake of the edit.” He broke a wall there—how do you know when to keep a moment like that?
That’s fine. At the same time, we don’t want it to be fake and pretend like the cameras aren’t there. We want to create an environment where we forget that the cameras are there. And then the decision to keep it or leave it is about whether it’s good, whether it’s great, and whether it connects to the pieces around it. That one made sense because it was a funny moment, it felt good to everyone in the room, it felt great watching it through the lens, and connected with the pieces around it, so we decided to keep it. A lot of times there are things we have to let go of because it was good, but not great, or it was too disconnected from everything else we were doing.
Can you share any moments you had to cut but wish you kept?
You know what I think is crazy? Not on this show. I don’t think I’ve had anything where I was heartbroken that I had to let go of it. The best stuff always lives. I might be excited about everything Jay-Z has to say, but there’s criteria. When it comes to that, say he drops 10 nuggets of knowledge. If five make it into the episode, the other five aren’t wasted. I don’t look at it like that. I look at it as being about the great things he said that connect to the great thing someone else said. So I may have loved that he said this, but when he said this, it connected so much better with the overall theme of this episode.
You mentioned the energy in the room impacting the shoot. What’s it like watching other famous people react to people who are more famous than they are?
LeBron is the person everyone’s excited to see. But without question, when President Obama or Jay-Z is there, there’s a certain level of excitement. I think that you have a certain mindset when you’re at the top of whatever you do, so you can be excited—and I want that. I remember Chance was blown away when he was on with Will Smith. After the cameras stopped running, he was losing it and that was really beautiful to see. I think people take pride in being able to listen to and learn from each other, so they don’t want to waste too much time being excited because they’re there to learn from and grow with each other. So I think they understand that opportunity and are able to maximize it. And there are moments before and after when we can kind of cut loose.
What’s it like during the in-between moments where the comedians let loose or everyone laughs extra hard at whatever Jay-Z says?
I mean Kevin Hart never stops and that’s great. He has so much raw energy, but it didn’t change when he was on camera, so he was on and ready to go as soon as he showed up. Tiffany Haddish was in that space too; she just came in with that energy. Honestly, the most exciting thing for me to see is when people are in their space—and this is a testament to the people who work on the show—there’s no difference in who people are on or off camera other than their little, “I’m so excited to see you.” I remember Will Smith did a vlog while he was there. And then sometimes people will bring their people who want to shoot behind the scenes. But there aren’t crazy entourages because we have to keep it tight since we’re asking for so much in such a short amount of time.
Do you ever get surprise guests?
It has happened: Jimmy Iovine just showed up. I don’t know if it was because of someone who was on—because that was the episode with Pharrell and Travis Scott—but he just showed up. But we still want to respect the conversation, so we try to be very specific about who’s there and how we utilize that time.
Who surprised you the most with how they were on camera and during the moments in between?
A bunch of people for different reasons [laughs]. Without question, Jay: How connected he is for how prolific he is. We had this moment during the episode where Jay and Bad Bunny were on. PR speaks Spanish obviously and we wanted Bad Bunny to feel as comfortable as possible, so PR told him he could speak Spanish and he’d translate for him. Bad Bunny is a global superstar, but he was able to feel safe in that moment knowing that if I don’t love my English as much, I can just be me. There was this great moment where Bad Bunny started answering a question and it just wasn’t flowing, so he switched over to Spanish and PR translated. I was talking to Jay while we took a break afterwards and he was like, “Yo, that was a really beautiful moment for your show.” And it was, because not only could Jay-Z feel the moment, he could feel the element—and it’s my job to feel out the room and figure out the element. But Jay’s ability to connect with everyone individually in addition to the whole thing, holistically, is just beautiful, especially with the career he’s had.
Martin Lawrence is so cool because he can be calm, but when I needed him to turn Martin on for an intro shot, he’s like, “Oh, you need Marty Mar?” and he just turned it on [laughs]. Will Smith is just a presence no matter where he is; he is the movie star. I get excited when cats don’t really take themselves too seriously. A lot of these guys drive themselves to the set. Seth Rogen drove himself, rolled down the window, and was like: “Where do I park?” I love moments like that. And it might be surprising to some people, but just how perceptive LeBron is. He’s someone who constantly loves to listen and learn. People are excited to see him, but he understands who he is, and he’s like, “No, I’m here to see you.” That’s a trait you see in phenomenal people: They want to listen more than they want to talk.
Sometimes people are only there for a portion of the episode. How do you manage shuttling people in and out?
It depends on schedules, so I think Drake’s appearance was dependent on his schedule and travel. We keep it very real, so when he shows up is when he shows up and when he’s gotta go, it means he’s gotta go. I can’t say enough about the talent team and the athletes relations team who work so hard to coordinate calendars. I’m working on two films now and one person can be a headache, so imagine getting four to eight amazing talents all in the same space at the same time. It’s crazy to coordinate that. But that’s how we operate because of that, sometimes. Like yeah, we’re super-excited about this person, but to get this to work, they can do it on this day. It could be two months from now, it could be two days from now. I think the tightest one we ever turned around, which was a blessing, was the President Obama episode. I think we shot that one within two days from the time we booked it and locked it in.
Everyone was remote for that because it was in the middle of the pandemic: Mav was in Mexico, LeBron was in L.A., and President Obama was in Miami. Everyone was doing Zoom shit and putting it on television, which looked so bad. I was like, “We can’t do that.” So I came up with the idea that we were going to shoot all these cool TVs in a barbershop and use that to project images onto later. So we shot all that stuff in a barbershop the next day, then I think the teams split up: a portion of my team flew overnight to Miami and shot President Obama. Another team was in Mexico, then another team was in L.A. We did a remote with the three of them, then animated and everything in less than a week.
That’s intense. So The Shop is something you were brought on to direct. How do you balance your vision for it with that of its creators?
It’s a combination. As a creative person, sometimes the vision gets lofty. You never want to restrict your creative vision, but you want to understand the formula for maximizing it within parameters. First of all, with respect and admiration for LeBron, Mav, PR, and what their original vision was. It’s not just about me saying what I like, I need to take that and understand the filter of what they’re trying to do with this product. It’s a total waste if I don’t deliver something beyond their expectations. Then, understanding HBO’s standards for quality, their perspective, and what’s important for them. Ultimately, the product is a combination of those, but it’s very important for me to understand all of them [while also considering] what I think is worthy. I’m ultimately here to impress myself—that’s the selfish part of creativity. If I catch myself off-guard like, “Oh shit, that’s cool,” then I’ve done the job. But for me to hit that point, I want Mav and LeBron to love this. I want HBO to be proud to present it. All of that matters, so it’s about understanding how to deliver on all of those fronts.